It’s not just about the dress. Or the shoes, or the jewelry, purse, or makeup. It’s more than prom, says Kim Peters, founder of the Prom Shop Project. She wants to show girls that despite the fact that they can’t afford a brand-new formal gown, they can still go to college. Peters grew up on the East Side of San Antonio, next door to a housing project. “It wasn’t uncommon to hear gunshots. I was raised in a loving supportive home, but right outside our door, it was nutty,” she explains. Unlike many of her friends, Peters left the neighborhood and attended Texas Tech University on a scholarship, graduating in just three years. She made a promise to herself to reach teenage girls some way, somehow. “I wanted to be able to go home and say to girls, ‘Look, I came from the same neighborhood, and I made it. I graduated. You can, too.’”

The whirlwind of prom season, which often separates the high school haves from the have-nots, seemed like the perfect opportunity. After all, her memory of wearing one of her mother’s bridesmaid dresses to her own prom was still fresh. So ten years ago, Peters started the Prom Shop Project, a nonprofit that gives away new and gently used dresses to teenage girls who can’t afford them. She started with just 75 dresses in Dallas, but the concept caught on. The organization now doles out more than 3,000 dresses in four Texas cities each year, along with shoes, accessories, and a healthy dose of confidence.

Every March, Peters hauls thousands of donated dresses, shoes, and accessories out of storage and hangs them up in a special section of a department store (Dillard’s and Saks Fifth Avenue have hosted several Prom Shops). For one day in Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio girls flock to the store to comb the racks for the right dress. And, apropos for a teenage rite of passage, no parents are allowed. There’s a special sitting area away from the fitting rooms that is reserved for family members. “Over the years, we’ve found parents to be more trouble than the teens,” explains Peters. “Lots of, ‘My daughter had this dress first!’ We don’t need that.” Volunteers help girls try on dresses and give them a few pointers on posture, etiquette, and picking the right bra. “We also talk a bit about peer pressure—how to say no,” Peters says. “Sometimes people try to make prom into a night of ‘firsts,’ but it doesn’t need to be like that.”

Dorian Babino found a perfect dress for her senior prom six years ago. She lovingly describes the fuchsia halter dress she found at the store in Dallas. “It was amazing, because I’m four feet ten, and it fit me perfectly,” Babino says. She ran track, participated in student government, and was a cheerleader at Sam Houston High School in San Antonio. But very few in her community went to college. “My parents went straight to the Army,” Babino says. “Even when I was cheerleading, people would ask, ‘Where are you going to work after high school?’ Kim told me about her experience in college, and I thought, ‘Maybe I want that.’ I never would have had that mentality without Kim.” The two remain close friends and speak often on the phone. Babino will graduate from East Texas A&M in May and hopes to work in public relations for higher education.

The Prom Shop runs entirely on donations. Local department stores supply the venue, the Container Store donated 24 dress racks, which are reused every year, and H-E-B and Cafe Express donate cakes, cookies, and refreshments. Most important, however, are the dresses that  pour in from across the state, both from stores and regular ol’ Texans cleaning out their closets. Designers Betsey Johnson and Maggie Sottero send several dozen dresses every year, and two hundred new pairs of Anne Klein and Nine West formal shoes left over from a Women’s Museum of Dallas event were donated (the museum’s events director, Shana Hamilton, is a longtime Prom Shop volunteer).

Next year, Peters will apply for federal and state nonprofit funding, and she hopes to open a few stores where girls can “shop” for formal wear year-round. There’s certainly a market for it: In addition to prom, there are homecoming dances, as well as banquets for cheerleading, athletics, and band. “No one wants to wear the same dress to everything,” Peters explains.

Babino, who volunteers at Prom Shops in Dallas and San Antonio nearly every year, has recruited her boyfriend to help stand guard, keeping wayward fathers and brothers away from the dressing rooms. She remembers one teenager who had recently had a child. “She was so excited because her mom was going to take care of the baby so she could go to school. I really commended her mom for giving her a second chance. And it was funny, the dress the girl picked out looked just like mine.”